Among the many duties of Deputy McHenry County Administrator John Labaj is being county government’s Freedom of Information Act officer. Which means he gets a lot of calls and emails from senior reporter Kevin Craver.
But Craver started hearing that there’s more to Labaj than getting documents sent off within five working days. And he decided that it was time to have a conversation with Labaj more substantial than, “Did you get my FOIA?”
Craver found out that Labaj loves classical music and the guitar, and is a native of New Jersey, which you wouldn’t know by talking to him, because the accent is long gone.
Craver: I was somewhat taken aback finding out you’re from Jersey. You don’t sound like you’re from Jersey.
Labaj: Born and raised in New Jersey. Union County, N.J., 45 minutes from New York City. Don’t ask me the miles. You never measure distance out there, but the time it takes. I left New Jersey when I was 18 and never went back; I lost the accent over time.
People tell me that they know I get really mad, and that doesn’t happen often, when I fall back into a Jersey accent.
Craver: I’ll spare you from Jersey jokes. Because, my friend, there is no bigger joke of a state right now than Illinois.
Labaj: I have friends in New Jersey and Michigan. We have this game between us as to who’s No. 1 – Illinois, Michigan or New Jersey – for the one that’s in the worst financial shape.
Craver: Speaking of Illinois, how did you get from there to here?
Labaj: I went to college in Indiana ... met my wife in Indiana, and originally moved to Illinois about 20-some years ago to work for the village of Oak Park.
I like the Midwest, the pace of living out here.
Craver: What do you do when you’re not helping run the county or getting me copies of notes scribbled on cocktail napkins dating back years?
Labaj: Listen to and play music. Music is my passion – I really enjoy it. Biking, too. I love going out to eat, and I must say the restaurant fare of all the years I’ve been here in McHenry County is getting better and better.
Craver: I hear you play guitar. Any other instruments?
Labaj: One’s enough, but I do try to dabble a bit in mandolin. I got into bluegrass music a few years ago. Got into the ukulele, too.
For kids, little kids, the ukulele is perfect. Small, nylon strings, really easy to chord. It’s a happy instrument.
Craver: I also hear you love the classics. Who are your favorites?
Labaj: [Classical music station] WNIU is on in our house constantly. I like Brahms. Beethoven, Bach, a bit of Mahler. Debussy. I started getting into opera later in life.
Craver: Did you teach your children how to play guitar?
Labaj: I tried. And I made them suffer through piano lessons. But you always strike out on your own path and do what you like.